Beggar's Chicken (before)
photos: Sasha Wizansky
Beggar's Chicken (unveiled)
Cha Ca La Vong
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I love it when a restaurant proves me wrong. I'm rather optimistic as a diner (and most definitely as a person), usually hoping the food will be pretty good when I go check a place out. I am always seeking surprises and secrets, whether it's an authentic or I've-never-seen-that-before dish, a totally passionate chef, or simply a good story of how a restaurant came to be.
So I'm the first to admit I had not been to ~BETELNUT~ in years--I had somehow written it off as an Asian fusion place I went in my 20s to eat hoisin pork and minced chicken in lettuce cups and the famed Szechuan green beans, but no moreâ¦ I mean, really, why go eat Asian food in Cow Hollow when I can get authentic dishes elsewhere instead?
Boy, was that reasoning flawed. Chef Alex Ong is kicking some serious culinary booty, so please, learn from my mistake. I went to check out the Tuesday night "Pig Out" menu, featuring roasted suckling pig from Vande Rose Farms in Iowa, served with sugar snap peas that pop right in your mouth, and jasmine rice ($24.99 for two). It's a laborious three-day process to cook the 40-pound pigs, including a one-hour hot bath in a wok (that is some work!). Wait until you take a bite of the smoky and candy-like lacquered skin.
Whoa, was that goat belly on the menu of specials that night? Yup--a ridiculously delicious braised turmeric goat belly ($14.88) from Marin Sun Farms. It was less mouth coating than pork belly, with a pleasant gamey flavor sporting a bite from some accompanying sweet and spicy jalapeno vinegar--I also liked the squirt of acidity from the wedge of lime that the goat belly is served with. (This dish is not always on the menu, but it's on there often--you gotta get it.) There was even more meaty exotica on the specials menu: the Sri Lankan "black curry" mutton ($14.88), rich with cinnamon, cloves, and coconut milk, and so tender, with a prickle of spice.
The meat fest continued with the tender cumin lamb skewers ($11.88), feisty with the flavors of fermented black bean, coriander, and chili paste. These were followed by the glazed pork short ribs ($11.88), covered in a finger lickin' sauce that makes you forget your table manners-you don't want to lose one bit of delectable garlicky sauce to the hot towels. The ribs are twice cooked (braised, then fried), so the texture is that sublime combo of tender yet crunchy.
Don't pass up the dumplings either--there are four Cantonese ladies who make them each day, and the "newest" dumpling maker has been working for the restaurant for just shy of four years. Being the spice lover I am, I went for the "shui jiao" pork-chive-ginger dumplings ($9.75) that rest in a hot bath of fire-breathing/numbing Szechuan-peppercorn broth. Rawr.
My friend and I went nuts for the "Cha Ca La Vong," ($15.88), a famous dish from Hanoi's Old Quarter that dates back to 1871. Pan-seared white bass with turmeric, fish sauce, and garlic is served over rice noodles with fresh dill, peanuts, chiles, scallion, and cilantro. It totally did our heads in--what a dish. The dill elevates it on an entirely other level. I want to go back for it right now. Yes, right NOW. And it's prepared tableside, a nice touch.
Pssst, wanna know a cool secret? Every night there are only a few off-the-menu beggar's chickens ($27.88) available; it's a unique preparation of a Poulet Rouge chicken stuffed with lap cheong sausage (sweet Chinese dried sausage), mushrooms, and artichokes, all wrapped in an enormous lotus leaf and clay, and then baked.
The bird is presented to you at the table, and you take out your aggressions with a mallet and crack that clay exterior open. That's it--hit that plucker, hard! Then your server removes the broken clay pieces, and unwraps it. Awww, there it is! The bird almost looks like an unswaddled baby Jesus in the manger, all naked and shiny. Just wait until you take a bite of this tender, fragrant, savory chicken. It falls off the bone and right into your eagerly open maw. It's magic.
If you can make it to dessert, you can finish with a trio of refreshing sorbet and ice creams, like coconut or pineapple, or the creamy and cool coconut tapioca pudding with adzuki beans and crème anglaise (both $8.88).
The dining room is like the City's rumpus room, full of families (with teens or younger), dates, double dates, birthday groups of 20-somethingsâ¦ It has a comfortable din, and the carpeted floors help absorb the sound. There's a definite upbeat soundtrack, an eclectic mix of smooth chill tracks to house-y beats, so don't bring grandma here unless she likes a younger scene. The mood is evocative, with a red and brown color scheme and dim lighting that make it right for a date, and the counter seats are perfect if you're flying solo. There's always a packed bar scene, with folks jockeying for drinks and the coveted sidewalk seating under heat lamps.
Service is friendly and skilled, and most impressively, Ong's kitchen crew has been working there a long time, many for the ten years he has been there. You should meet chef Ong--he has lots of stories, and is happy to share information about how things are prepared--and where in his many travels did he discover a particular dish.
So are you ready to go? Sure, you can do the usual fusion-y favorites here, but I really think the "road not taken" will yield more culinary wow moments--thank me later. How? You can bring me that Cha Ca La Vong fish, for starters.
2030 Union St.
Cross: Buchanan St.
San Francisco, CA 94123
The restaurant is now Hutong.